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Dale Earnhardt Jr. is pursuing his third Daytona 500 title.John Raoux/Associated Press

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistFebruary 25, 2017

The Daytona 500 marks the start of the 2017 NASCAR season, and the 200-lap race around the classic 2 1/2-mile track often lives up to its billing as the Great American Race.

That was the case last year when Denny Hamlin edged out Martin Truex Jr. by one one-hundredth of a second in the closest race in the history of the event.

While it will be hard to match last year’s finish, it is one of the most anticipated NASCAR openers in several years.

One of the most fascinating aspects is the return of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who comes back to racing after an eight-month absence after suffering a concussion. He will be pursuing his third Daytona 500 title.

Where: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Florida

When: Sunday, Feb. 26, 2 p.m. ET

Watch: Fox

Stream: Fox Sports 1

Earnhardt is favored to win the event, according to OddsShark.com. He goes into the event with odds of +450, meaning a $100 wager will return a profit of $450 if he happens to take the checkered flag.

Brad Keselowski is the second choice at +700, while Joey Logano is the third choice at +900. Veteran drivers Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch follow at +1,000.

Chase Elliott and Earnhardt will start in the front row, and both men will have to be concerned with Busch, Hamlin, Jamie McMurray, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer. 

Earnhardt said on media day that he is close to retirement from racing. He said the reason he has returned is a chance to win the championship.

Daytona 500 Field
1. Chase Elliott Hendrick Motorsports
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Hendrick Motorsports
3. Jamie McMurray Chip Ganassi Racing
4. Denny Hamlin Joe Gibbs Racing
5. Kevin Harvick Stewart-Haas Racing
6. Clint Bowyer Stewart-Haas Racing
7. Brad Keselowski Team Penske
8. Kurt Busch Stewart-Haas Racing
9. Matt Kenseth Joe Gibbs Racing
10. AJ Allmendinger JTG Daugherty Racing
11. Trevor Bayne Roush Fenway Racing
12. Austin Dillon Richard Childress Racing
13. Martin Truex Jr. Furniture Row Racing
14. Danica Patrick Stewart-Haas Racing
15. Aric Almirola Richard Petty Motorsports
16. Ryan Newman Richard Childress Racing
17. Joey Logano Team Penske
18. Kyle Larson Chip Ganassi Racing
19. Cole Whitt TriStar Motorsports
20. Ty Dillon Germain Racing
21. Daniel Suarez Joe Gibbs Racing
22. David Ragan Front Row Motorsports
23. Kyle Busch Joe Gibbs Racing
24. Michael McDowell Leavine Family Racing
25. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Roush Fenway Racing
26. Jimmie Johnson Hendrick Motorsports
27. Matt DiBenedetto Go Fas Racing
28. Kasey Kahne Hendrick Motorsports
29. Landon Cassill Front Row Motorsports
30. D.J. Kennington Gaunt Brothers Racing
31. Chris Buescher JTG Daugherty Racing
32. Michael Waltrip Premium Motorsports
33. Joey Gase BK Racing
34. Jeffrey Earnhardt Circle Sport – The Motorsports Group
35. Corey LaJoie BK Racing
36. Erik Jones Wood Brothers Racing
37. Paul Menard Richard Childress Racing
38. Ryan Blaney Premium Motorsports
39. Brendan Gaughan Beard Motorsports
40. Elliott Sadler Tommy Baldwin Racing
NASCAR.com

“Hell, yeah,” Earnhardt told Reid Spencer of the NASCAR News Service (h/t United Press International). “I would definitely not want to come back and try to race anymore if I won the championship. I would be out of here.

“You know, I’ve always wanted to win a championship so badly. Coming back from this injury, we worked so hard. To come back this year, win a championship, it would be hard not to hang it up.”

Bringing home a title is strong motivation, but the competition in this race is going to be intense.

The Great American Race is always about much more than horsepower and drafting. It is about being aggressive at the right time and taking advantage of the small holes that other drivers leave. The driver who does this best—and has no mishap with any aspect of the car—has the best chance to win.

 

Prediction


Earnhardt may be the favorite, but it’s going to be tough to bring home a third title in his first race back in competition. Everyone has to shake off the rust at Daytona, and Earnhardt has more of it than most of his competitors.

That’s why we like Keselowski to emerge here and take the checkered flag. He can bide his time and should have an excellent chance to run the favorite down and capture the title.

He will face challenges from Logan, Elliott and Harvick, but this should be Keselowski’s race to win.



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